In Search Of Goodness

My soul was jarred by the morning news early last week. The cumulative impact of one distressing story after another. North Korea claiming to have a hydrogen bomb and submarines to launch it, a disaffected group occupying a Federal building in Oregon, a leading presidential candidate dispensing his unique form of vitriol on the campaign trail, ISIS announcing a new UK man as its executioner and spokesman, and these were just the headlines. Meanwhile, the national debate over immigration, gun control, and healthcare is as intractable and nasty as ever.

At times like this I question whether listening to the news is the best way to start a day. Either my heart bears the burden of these stories or it becomes hardened to them. On this particular morning my spirit felt more burdened than hardened when I sat down for my quiet time. Goodness seemed eclipsed by the darkness of my thoughts, which were well captured by the refrain rattling around my brain – “And in despair I bowed my head; ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said; ‘For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men!’” These words, of course, are from the song I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day, based on the poem Christmas Bells by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

There is a way of living that can impede our search for goodness. For ours is an unfortunate age that feeds on fear. It’s not just the fear of terrorism and its perceived threat that grips our collective hearts, but the fear of a weakening economy and losing one’s job, the fear of a changing environment from global warming, the fear of illness from drug-resistant superbugs, etc. The fires of these fears are stoked by “talking heads” in the media forever blaming a person or political party for all of our ills, real or imagined. If only we would put their man or woman in office all would be well.

The question I struggled with on this particular morning was not just how to transcend the bleakness of the morning news, but where to find goodness in a world of evil? Where to rest a soul hungering and thirsting for goodness? Where to find things that are true, noble, and right? Where to seek what’s pure, lovely, and admirable?

I discovered goodness in two places that day. First, in a delightful book I am reading called Northern Farm written by Henry Beston in the 1940’s. This is a journal of a year in the life of a Maine farm. Mostly it is a reflection about nature and the seasonal changes in one rural outpost Downeast. The author’s reflections remind me of the rhythm of life lived close to the land – a slower paced, more deliberate existence in harmony with rather that opposition to the natural (and supernatural) world. Within a few pages I felt my spiritual equilibrium being restored. But beyond the narrative is the fact that my Father loved to read this book, which was his copy that he gave me a year or so before he died. So when I hold and read it I am also remembering my Dad and imagine him being filled by the beauty of the images sketched by the author.

I also found goodness in a memorial service I attended later that day for the mother of a friend of mine. Her name was Millie and the tributes to her were lovely, with many members of her extended family eulogizing her. One thing that stands out for me was how open and accepting she was to people in her life. Particularly moving was the way the spouse of each of her children recounted how she embraced them unconditionally and became for them a second mother. Loving others like this is truly the heart of goodness.

Both the book and memorial service were a balm for my soul. They encouraged me to think anew about goodness and what it means to live a good life.

Longfellow’s poem doesn’t end in despair despite the fact that when he wrote it on Christmas day 1863 he had good reason to despair. The nation was engulfed in the great Civil War, his oldest son lay in a hospital bed paralyzed by a bullet from that war, and he was still mourning his wife who had died tragically two years earlier when her dress caught fire. That Longfellow had five other children to care for certainly weighed heavily on his heart. How deep his despair must have been when he penned the verse of no peace on earth, no good-will among men.

And yet, somewhere Longfellow found the strength to transcend this dark period of his life as his concluding words express a deeper hope and reality, “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: ‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men.’” Great words of faith to hold onto as a certain reality. And a great encouragement in the search for goodness.




       “What shall I return to the Lord for all his goodness to me?”  (Psalm 116:12)

The rain ended sometime in the middle of the night. I have a vague recollection of hearing one final shower on the south facing bedroom windows before dropping off. In the morning the rain gauge reported the final storm tally – over five inches. Normally by this time of year the gauge would be safely stowed indoors in its “winter quarters.” However, record-breaking warm weather and the curiosity of quantifying the coming deluge brought it out of hibernation for a few days. What was a major late December weather maker for us, brought tornados and devastation to less fortunate parts of the country. The result, we are told, of a super El Niño in the Pacific this year. Our local rivers are at flood stage and it will be several days before they once again run inside their assigned channels. The wind is now banking from the west and temperatures are dropping to more normal levels – just in time for the New Year.

To my mind, there is something essential about cold temperatures and short days to make it feel like the end of one year and the start of the next. How strange it would be to live in more temperate regions of the world, not to mention the Southern Hemisphere where the New Year coincides with the start of summer. For me, though, it is cold and darkness that mark the turning of the year – a few brief days after the astronomical timing of the winter solstice, when the north pole of earth’s axis makes an imperceptible yet decisive pivot back towards the sun.

And so as the calendar year makes its turn in this bleak midwinter, my thoughts about a “Year of Virtue” pivot from last year’s journey to the next. I have in mind many more virtues to explore as a way of seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. Hopefully, many of you who participated last year will continue to engage in this ongoing experiment of intentionally following Jesus. Perhaps others will join us. For me, the past year has been greatly enriched by our fellowship and mutual encouragement.

For the start of the New Year, I have been thinking about goodness and what this looks like for a follower of Jesus. The Old Testament refers to goodness almost exclusively in reference to a key attribute of God. For example I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” (Psalm 27:13); and “What shall I return to the Lord for all his goodness to me?” (Psalm 116:12); and notably, “Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” (Psalm 23:6) God, of course, looked at the whole of His creation and declared it good – the earth, the seas, the creatures, and man. Much was lost by the Fall, yet Jesus has redeemed us so that we can recover some of His goodness in our lives.

Perhaps this is why the New Testament insists that goodness is a key virtue in the life a follower of Christ. It confirms that we are called to live a godly life by the goodness of God (2 Peter 1:3) Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians is that God will bring to fruition their desires for goodness. (2 Thessalonians 1:22). And while we know that goodness is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22), it is significant that Peter tells us that we are to make every effort to add goodness to our faith. (2 Peter 1:5)

Trying to define goodness is difficult without using the word good or a synonym. Perhaps this is why it is not easy to discuss goodness in the abstract. A key point I think is that goodness involves right thought and action and avoiding its opposite, evil. A description of goodness that captures these ideas is:

“In man is not a mere passive quality, but the deliberate preference of right to wrong, the firm and persistent resistance of all moral evil, and the choosing and following of all moral good.” (Easton’s 1897 Bible Dictionary)

Looking at the list of virtues we explored in 2015, there are elements of goodness in all of them – joy, patience, generosity, self-control, courage, kindness, peace, humility, faithfulness, justice, thankfulness, and compassion. All of which suggests to me that goodness is foundational to our Christian walk and thus important to consider how to “make every effort” in pursuing it. It also introduces a note of caution for me insofar as the very depth and breadth of this virtue of goodness may make it harder to grab hold of in a practical way.

I write from my experience last year in which the virtues I found most impactful were those such as patience, self-control, and thankfulness, which I was able to practice in concrete ways. Ones that I thought about in more abstract terms such as courage and justice were harder to engage with. Thus, a goal for me in the New Year is to pursue each virtue in a tangible way. In other words, become a doer and not just a hearer.

I am thinking about three specific ways to embrace goodness. First, I need to interject goodness into the tangled relationships I have with certain family members by resetting the way I interact with them. In some instances it involves contacting them more often, for others it is making charitable judgments for their actions, for all it will involve praying for them.

Second, because goodness also involves turning from sin, I am trying to be honest with God and myself by looking deeply at specific areas of my life where I am not living a life worthy of the calling I have been given. Paul imparts some wonderful wisdom on this in Ephesians 4. My focus will be on Ephesians 4:29, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”

And third, I believe that goodness isn’t just doing, it also involves receiving. And here I want to meditate on the goodness of God’s creation. The heavens show the work of God, His glory they proclaim; the skies disclose His handiwork through starry host aflame.” (Psalm 19:1) Even in the midst of unusual weather events, which are certain to occur in the coming year, I want to marvel at the goodness of God and how he renews creation just as He wants to renew me. Which brings me back to the question of the Psalmist “What shall I return to the Lord for all his goodness to me?” (116:12)

So what does goodness mean to you? Where does this fit within your understanding of Christian virtue? Where do you need to exemplify goodness in your life? How do you “make every effort” to add goodness to your faith? Your comments are most welcome.

God bless you all in the New Year.